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Can giving really make you happier and healthier?

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Ready for a Science Experiment?

Think of a happy memory from your childhood. What do you see? Who was there? Studies show that recalling that memory has made you happier and more likely to be charitable. Do you have the sudden urge to open your wallet and give away all your money?  Maybe not. But you probably enjoyed remembering that happy moment.

Next experiment: commit a random act of kindness. Right now. Call your mom; she wants to hear from you! Invite a friend to lunch, your treat. Offer to dog sit for your neighbor.

These small actions may increase your happiness levels for several weeks. Not minutes or hours.  Weeks.  It turns out that happy people give more, and people who give are generally happier.

The simple act of giving leads to brain activity in the regions implicated with the experience of pleasure and reward. Giving things away actually makes us feel better than if we kept them for ourselves. That means retail therapy may be a misnomer, unless you’re shopping for someone else.

It seems obvious; we are taught early on that giving is good. As children we learn to share. Later as teens and young adults, we take part in community service projects, tutor young students or volunteer at local shelters.

Giving is built into our society – we exchange presents with friends and family to celebrate special days. It’s a way to express love and gratitude. It’s a way to share a part of ourselves with others.

But, did you know that giving could actually makes us healthier?

Fitter, Happier

Did you recall that nice childhood memory? Did you commit that random act of kindness? If you did, you not only made yourself feel good, but you also may have increased your physical and mental health.

There are links between giving charitable donations and psychological well-being, including lower risk of depression and higher reported life satisfaction.

Older volunteers who donate their time experience a significant reduction in mortality risk. That’s right, they often actually live longer.

Even more amazing is that people who merely saw others being highly charitable, say, by watching a film clip of Mother Theresa working with the poor, showed an increase in a biomarker of healthy immune functioning, compared to those watching a control film clip.

See someone commit a nice act, ward off disease. Could it be this simple?

The Importance of Being Selfless

Life should be easy now that we know how to be happy, boost our immune system, and live longer. But before you spend the evening binge watching Mother Teresa highlights, you should know that there is a little more to the equation.

It turns out that the positive effects of giving and thinking about giving are present only when these actions are done selflessly. What is known as self-focused giving actually has negative effects on health.

One study of even found that among people with heart disease, those who made excessive use of the first person pronoun were more likely to have higher blood pressure, more occluded arteries and a greater risk of mortality. Yes. Using the word “I” could be bad for you, well, if you have heart disease.

Bottom line: it’s about empathy.

Life According to Bert and Ernie

How, then, can we learn to give selflessly?

In the simplest of terms, we should be more like Bert and Ernie in the Sesame Street Christmas Special. Oh, you don’t watch this 1970s classic on a semi-regular basis? Nobody on the Tab for a Cause team does that either…

In a nutshell, the two friends buy each other Christmas gifts by giving up an object they love very much. They are sad to lose something special to them, but grateful to give the other the perfect gift. It’s an allegory for the idea of selfless giving, and it’s adorable because they’re puppets and they end up singing a duet together.

If talking puppets aren’t your thing, check out David Brooks’ recent New York Times article “The Moral Bucket List” which delves into his own journey towards empathy and selflessness. He gives advice on how to live a better inner life, and a lot of it has to do with getting rid of the self and giving to others.

Most of us spend our lives trying to figure out how to do good, and that’s probably how it should be.  In the end, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to live. One thing is certain though: if you give for the pure sake of giving your life will be the better for it.

Written by Alessandra Aquilanti, Contributing Writer